January 4, 2012

Advice for training abused or neglected rescued dogs

I recently got an e-mail from a friend who was asking for help for her rescued pit bull. Here's an excerpt from the e-mail (edited for privacy):

"Hey Amber, I have a 1 year old pit bull. I've had her for 6 months. She came from a horrible situation.  She was bred to fight (although I don't think she ever did), and was abandoned with two other pits and some cats in a north side house for a month with no food and only toilet water. She was bone-skinny when I got her (she was only at the rescue for 2 days), and she had mange and open sores all over her body."

My friend is now looking to socialize this dog, and teach her some basic obedience so as to make her more adoptable. Currently, the dog has issues with people, especially men, that my friend believes (quite correctly) are because of fear issues. Apparently, she is also fearful out in public...a sure sign of bad socialization.

I wish I could say that I've never had to work with dogs in this situation. Unfortunately, I have...too many times to count. The sad truth of the matter is that thousands of dogs of all breeds and mixes are euthanized every day (without even being put up for adoption), because of issues like the ones my friend described. There are simply too many dogs needing homes and even the best behaved dogs aren't guaranteed an adoption. The fact that this dog is a pit bull only makes matters worse.

Even a well-socialized, well-trained pit bull faces a difficult time being adopted due to stereotypes, media hype and breed specific legislation. Many people aren't willing to deal with the backlash that often comes from owning a well-behaved pit bull, much less one that comes prepackaged with major socialization, fear and reactivity issues.

I say all of this not to discourage rescuers, foster parents, or new owners of pit bulls. In fact, I applaud your efforts and the commitment you are making to a much maligned breed. Instead, the point of this post is to give some advice on how to go about rehabilitating a dog with these kinds of issues.

I would like to point out that these techniques are applicable to any breed of dog with these issues. The only real difference is that when you have a pit bull (or any other breed that is likely to intimidate people), it is even more important that your dedication to the training is 100%. As anyone familiar with pits will tell you, there will be no forgiveness from the public if your dog acts aggressively. There are often no second chances. This is not training to be taken as a hobby or as something to do in your free time. Finally, these tips are not intended to be all-inclusive. If you have specific problems with your dog, always err on the side of caution and see an experienced professional dog trainer.

Now that the lecture is over, let's move on to some important points.


All too often, people are failing in their rehabilitation of dogs because they are trying to make up for the awful things that have happened to the dog before they got them. The truth of the matter is that the training is the same regardless of the dog's past. The dog is conditioned by his past history, yes. But he can be counter-conditioned, too. Being too soft and accommodating to a fearful, under-socialized dog only reinforces the very behavior you are trying to change.

Some of the dogs that I have worked with have heartbreaking stories. Stories that make you want to cry or fight or both. However, those are my issues, not the dog's. I cry, rage or vent about them with my human friends. With dogs, I am the same consistent leader I am with dogs who have been spoiled since whelping. All dogs need consistent, strong leaders that they can depend on, but dogs with issues need it even more. The best gift you can give a dog who has been abused is to treat him like a dog, not a human. Trust me-- a strong, consistent and fair leader is what these dogs need.

#2: USE MARKING TRAINING ("clicker" training) 

No two dogs are the same, and no two training plans should be identical, either. That being said, when working with reactive or fearful dogs, bolstering the dog's sense of confidence is vital. 9 times out of 10, even an aggressive dog is acting out of fear (remember fight or flight?). As counter-intuitive as it seems to some people, increasing a dog's confidence frequently decreases aggressive behavior.

To bolster a fearful dog's confidence, marker training is the way to go. This type of training involves no physical corrections and allows the dogs to go at their own pace and comfort level. For an excellent article on marker training, click here.

A new handler may have to adjust to the timing needed to master marker training, but mistakes will not harm your dog. In this style of training, the dog is simply trying to figure out what they need to do to make the hairless monkey (you) drop the food. By doing so, they lose their helplessness, insecurity and defensiveness. As a bonus, marker training is fun for you, too.


Done correctly, this type of training is even effective on goldfish and reptiles. It will work with your dog if you are patient and consistent.


Often times, a dog's behavior is a result of her negative past conditioning. But keep in mind, many of these dogs were poorly bred, too, without consideration to the temperament or mental stability of the parents. Often, the goal of bad breeders is simply to produce more dogs. Therefore, be aware that there is a real possibility that your dog may always be a little skittish. Your dog may always be slower to relax in new situations. That's okay. The goal here is not to turn a VW into a Porsche, but instead to make it the best damn VW you can possibly have.

A reasonable training goal for anyone rehabilitating a pit bull or any other rescue dog, is to pass the AKC's Canine Good Citizen test. Read about the requirements here. This is not a difficult test to pass with consistent training, and it gives you a clearly defined goal when working with a dog. It has other benefits, too: A dog with a AKC CGC certification is occasionally allowed in homes with insurance that normally bans certain breeds. It also gives a landlord more confidence when renting to you. And finally, and most importantly, it dramatically increases the odds of finding a forever home for your rescue or foster dog. The test is inexpensive, and like me, many professional trainers offer classes or private sessions to help dogs pass the test, or you can have some fun training the dog yourself.

Finally, I want to send a big thank you out to the fantastic people, like my friend, who take in abused, homeless, or neglected animals for no other reason than to help make a furry life better. You may not change the world, but you will change that dog's world.



  1. . Even these Best Dog Whisperer's who are highly trained in the guard dog business, can only do so much in any given day. Puppy Obedience Training

  2. We just adopted a 4 yr old female pit. She has been neglected & ignored for probably her entire life. She was in the shelter for about 5 months before we brought her home. Before adopting, we made sure to have everything a dog would want, including a crate for her personal space. She is great with other dogs, but afraid of ppl. She won't take treats or look at us. She has made a few baby steps & we have rewarded her with praise. We know this will be a process, & understand that patience is key. Any advice? We dont want to coddle & encourage her current behavior of staying in the crate all day (door is open at all times), but we also don't want to ignore her completely while she adjusts. Its only been 2 days so we weren't expecting a miracle, but I think sooner rather than later we would love to take measures to help her adjust